The Vile Sky Club – a sector profile of the aviation industry

Aviation features high on the environmental most-wanted list. And, as the airline industry is predicted to treble by 2030, this is not wholly unreasonable. But differences remain over how best to curb its emissions, writes Mike Scott

Aviation is a sector that is seemingly under attack from all sides. Environmentalists, the European Union, residents who live near airports and the global oil price are just some of the issues the industry has to deal with.

The sector is responsible for 2-3% of global emissions of greenhouse gases, similar to the IT industry. But there are no calls for IT to be subject to emissions trading. Meanwhile, the price of oil rose $44 in the second quarter of this year to briefly touch $140. Every $1 increase in oil costs aviation $1.6B (£840M), according to Innovest Strategic Investors.

The price of oil on its own, now the main proportion of airlines’ costs, is enough to drive the industry to cut its emissions, say airline chiefs. During the same period, the European Union put the finishing touches to its plan to include aviation in its Emissions Trading Scheme from 2012.

But that is only one side of the story. According to the Tyndall Centre on Climate Change Research, if aviation were allowed to grow unchecked at current rates – and it is predicted to treble by 2030 – every other sector in the UK would have to significantly cut their emissions to allow the country to meet its emissions targets. Predicted growth rates for aviation elsewhere, particularly in emerging markets, are even higher. Boeing predicts that the global airline fleet will double by 2026. On top of this, because they happen at altitude, aviation’s emissions are thought to be more damaging than those from other sectors.

The industry also rouses the ire of environmentalists because international regulations dating back to the Second World War mean aviation fuel is exempt from tax, as are airline tickets.

This combination of factors means that cutting fuel consumption, and thus emissions, is the central concern of the industry, politicians and regulators. However, significant differences remain over the best way to achieve this reduction.

Because of its trans-national nature, aviation was excluded from the Kyoto Protocol, although countries were meant to work towards cutting emissions through the International Civil Aviation Organisation (ICAO). In the face of what it saw as foot-dragging by the ICAO, the European Commission introduced plans to include all flights into and out of Europe in its Emissions Trading Scheme (ETS) from 2012. In doing so, it has set itself on a collision course with the US, which has said it will retaliate with trade sanctions if its airlines are forced to comply with the ETS.

The industry has also protested vociferously. “We support emissions trading, but Europe’s unilateral approach is wrong,” said Giovanni Bisignani, director general of the International Air Transport Association (IATA), the industry body. “Instead of cleaning up the environment, this will create an international legal mess. States outside Europe are already threatening legal action. Going global is the only way to success. Good sense has been hijacked by uncoordinated green policies.”

However, at the same time, pressure is growing domestically for the US to deal with the issue – a group of states, New York City and a coalition of conservation groups has said they will sue the Environmental Protection Agency for failing to tackle emissions from aviation and shipping and the next US president may be more inclined to join forces with the EU to tackle environmental issues. Furthermore, ICAO, which has objected to the EU move, saying a global scheme would be more effective, has taken steps to implement such a global scheme, which may have been the real reason for Brussels’ move in the first place.

One way or another, the industry knows it has to deal with its emissions – and there is plenty of work going on in this regard. IATA says it has a four-pillar strategy to address climate change focusing on technology investment, effective operations, efficient infrastructure and positive economic measures. Indeed, it says the EU should stop worrying about emissions trading and sort out its air traffic management (ATM) system.

For every minute of flying time saved, fuel consumption falls by an average of 62 litres and CO2 emissions are cut by 160kg. But, according to the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), ATM is 12% less efficient than it could be, which is costing the industry nearly $13.5B (£7.1B) and needlessly adding 73M tonnes of CO2 to the atmosphere.

The problem is that, while the industry is now truly global, airspace remains the province of national governments. This introduces inefficiencies related to national borders and military airspace. For 20 years, Europe has been trying to implement a Single European Sky but it has been held up because member states have been reluctant to abandon control of their airspace. Every time an aircraft enters a member state’s airspace, a different air traffic service provider, with different rules and ways of operating, takes over responsibility. Flights in Europe are on average 49km longer than they need to be because they have to follow national borders. However, resistance is softening to the Single European Sky because, according to EU Transport Commissioner Antonio Tajani, it could save airlines ?2-3B (£1.6-2.3B) a year.

Aircraft and engine makers are also looking for technological solutions, continuing a long tradition – from 1950 to 1997, fuel efficiency improved by 70%, says the IPCC (although these improvements have been outweighed by the growth in air travel). At the moment, there are two main ways to do this – by making aircraft lighter and through improvements to engines. About half of Boeing’s 787 Dreamliner is made up of composite materials. This makes the aircraft 15-30% lighter than if metals had been used. Its engines will also be more fuel efficient than current engines, using about 15% less fuel.

The Airbus A380 superjumbo incorporates similar technology, but adds further efficiency gains per passenger by having more passengers and an extended range that means it does not have to refuel as often – take-off and landing are the most fuel-thirsty parts of a flight. It has a range of 15,200km, which would allow it to fly from New York to Hong Kong non-stop.

Engine makers such as Rolls Royce and Pratt & Whitney are exploring different ways to improve fuel efficiency – P&W’s geared turbofan is said to burn 12-15% less fuel than other jets. Even propeller aircraft – which virtually disappeared because they were noisier and slower than jets – are making a comeback on short haul routes on the basis of their greater fuel efficiency.

There is little prospect in the short term of aviation being able to use some of the technologies being introduced in road-based transport, such as batteries and hydrogen power. But one promising avenue is biofuels, with a number of airlines, aircraft and engine makers collaborating to develop plant-based fuels suitable for aviation. There are a number of technical problems to overcome, not least the tendency of some biofuels to freeze at altitude but rapid progress has been made. Airbus said at this year’s Farnborough Air Show that it believed biofuels could make up 30% of aviation fuel by 2030.

The first flight to use biofuel was made by a Virgin Atlantic 747 in February this year, when it flew from London to Amsterdam with a 20% biofuel blend in one of its four engines. Air New Zealand, Lufthansa and Japan Airlines are all set to test biofuel blends – and having lost the PR battle over emissions trading, the industry is keen to highlight its search for sustainable biofuels derived from non-food sources such as jatropha and algae.

Algae looks particularly promising because it does not compete with food for land, it can use wastewater, yields are much greater than other biofuels because it grows so much faster. Crucially, it also produces a fuel similar in composition to kerosene, meaning it would be cheaper to make it compatible with existing aircraft engines.

A report from Boeing says some 85B US gallons (322B litres) of bio-jet fuel could be produced on a landmass the size of the state of Maryland. “If these bio-jet fuels were fully compatible with legacy aircraft,” the report adds, “it would be sufficient to supply the present world’s fleet with 100% of their fuel needs well into the future.”

In the UK, the Carbon Trust is working with the industry to speed the development of algal biofuels and ease their passage to the market. Other options being explored in the longer term include liquid hydrogen and liquid methane, while Boeing’s research unit has successfully flown an aircraft powered by a fuel cell. Meanwhile, a French consortium is working towards flying a solar-powered plane, the Solar Impulse, around the world.

The aviation industry may have been slow to respond to the need to tackle its environmental impacts but it is making rapid progress, even if it is driven mainly by high oil prices rather than any environmental agenda.

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